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▶  More from Ancient Combat Cosmos & Consciousness
Stick Game of The Witches [C]
Cosmos & Consciousness By Ronald Thomas West, Bookmark 20 [C]


Many times it has happened that a team with a pointer of Lloyds caliber, and just one effective hider, such as this angry woman possibly could be, can come all the way back, from a single stick, to win.

I had an idea, and Lloyd had won the bones back, but he was down to 3 sticks, including the

Kick. I knew an obscure point gesture the angry woman might not know. The shot would have to be the ‘Outside’, everything would depend on luck, pure and simple. I did not even look for the ‘energy’ in the other hider, the player hiding other that this woman, the outcome of that hider, on this shot, would have to be incidental.

I took up a stick, and grasping it between thumb and forefinger, precisely in its center, I held it, hand up, horizontal to the ground and nodded. She sat up sharply, neither showing the bones and ducking, or throwing them across. Now she looked at Lloyd with a ‘What does that mean?’ expression. Lloyd made to her the most common, one of several ‘Outside’ gestures, thumb and forefinger spread apart, and she was caught, it was a correct guess on my part. Very luckily, I won the Bones back from the other player as well. Now the angry woman had been, finally, at least momentarily shook up, and Lloyd had seen that. We took one stick, Lloyd won the Bones back but was now down to two sticks.

However, Lloyd did not have confidence in the angry woman and did not return a set of Bones to her. I shot the outside again and won the Bones back and we again took one stick before Lloyd won the Bones back, now he had only the kick. Now Lloyd and the pointer from the previous game hid the Bones, their last ditch effort. Neither one of them believed I would come back a third time with an outside shot and they both placed the unmarked Bones in that position. It would not have mattered. I could ‘see’ the Bones and I shot the Outside shot again, a third time, and then we took the last stick with Lloyd’s next, and last guess. The game was over. Lloyd was stunned. It had been a fast game again. About 20 minutes.

After a short break, the woman was back, with a ‘god only knows where she found him’ Indian, this old man she sat with, to take me on for my third game, looked like a photo of Geronimo. He was wearing a Grizzly canine necklace. And together they beat me. Solidly. Andrew took the point for our side and we played them again.. in one of those collective contests of will that I hate, a game that dragged on all night. We lost again.

On another day, Lloyd and I, as friends, discussed the first two games in particular. After we talked, I was laughing in retrospect at what had happened. What neither Lloyd or I had known at the time these games were actually being played, was that this woman had, earlier in the day before I played, noticed me and pointed me out to the other Crees from Canada. She had seen me play at Flathead, was convinced that somehow I had been schooled in the old ways, informing the others I could “really play the game.” Without exception, the group had dismissed her account as preposterous. Whitemen can’t do that.

Perception of your player’s judgment is paramount, and she was not trusted with the Bones in the first game against me. And that is why she was so mad. A couple of years later, on a second memorable occasion I was to lead a Blackfeet team against another tribe, it was again against a group of Canadian Crees. It was towards the end of Indian Days in Browning, actually the last night of the Pow Wow and my Heart Butte family, the Wells, had been taking a beating. Towards daybreak, I took the lead and ‘thumbed’ my way to our first win. ‘Spud’ Wells one of my nephews, looked at me immediately following the victory and said “Do it again!”

Using your thumbs to point is a reverse guess, and I resorted to this because none of the good pointers in our family, and these were several very good pointers, had made any headway against the team we faced. Everyone had been consistently deceived into the wrong guess. So I used my thumb from the beginning, and pointing with the thumb only means the opposite of the direction you have pointed. It was working. When I felt pulled to a direction with my guess, I pointed that way with my thumb and I was beginning to knock them down, ‘killing’ the Bones, the first consistent success we had seen that night.

These were not easy games, and into this second game, already a hour long, I had to shit, and it was desperate. I thought maybe I might have to rupture my big intestine to keep sitting there much longer. But I could not leave, I was the only pointer present that had handled this opposition with any success, and my family could not afford me to take an absence at this moment. There is no ‘Time Out’ in stick game, the only recess is between games. I was trapped. Now, desperate to escape this trap, for the first and last time ever in all my years of playing this game, I resorted to a truly dirty trick to win. I wanted the game over as soon as possible, but I was not willing to lose, to make a run for the toilet.

Choosing my moment, the next time their side had both sets of Bones, and when their hiders were ready, I used both my thumbs, my right hand thumb out and clear for all to see and pointed to my right, which by itself would mean both the opposite players right hands, but at the same moment, I also pointed with my left thumb, to the left, opposite direction, however with this thumb held closer into my body so that my players to my right could not see this part of my guess. Now, everyone but my own players to my right side have seen me make the real point, not both the hiders right hands, but the middle.

When one of the opposing hiders properly expected a stick and to hide again, my players to my right, seeing my false guess intended only for them, became upset and the game stopped for a beginning argument. The entire opposition knew they were correct, my players to my right had the perception I had made a different guess, however they were not correct, and I did not immediately correct things with my players, but for just a couple of moments let the dispute develop to a point that the entire opposing team was beginning to get angry as well. Only at that critical moment, before it got really out of hand, I corrected my players, tossed the stick across and everyone sat down to play again. But now the opposite team was upset collectively, I still had my players to my left that did not become involved with the arguing, they were not upset, they saw nothing wrong, only wondered what had happened, and using them, the game was over in only a few minutes, we won. I jumped up to run for the nearest toilet, the sun was up, and as I turned around, I saw the last portable toilet on the Pow Wow grounds had just been loaded onto a truck, and it was being driven away.

My Stick Game stories would not be complete if I did not mention The Blackfeet Elder, Oral Historian and Grandmaster Stick Game player William Running Crane, aka 'Goat’, who also schooled me in the Blackfeet Oral History account of the Treaty of 1895. Goat is one of the finest traditional Blackfeet Indians I have ever known. I could never do Goat full justice in these stories. But I will say here that Goat is without question the most amazing Stick Game player I had ever encountered. It would be easy for me to write off Goat’s incredible displays with the bones as that of a master magician, to all appearances pushing the bones into his ears and blowing them out of his mouth, if it were not for a single encounter I had where Goat insured I would never doubt his powers as real.

I was in a very small game, facing Goat, one of those games that is just fun, only a few dollars riding on the game and a small handful of players, four or five, on each side. I had often in the past seen Goat give a small pop or jerk with his hands when guessed, before opening his hands to reveal a miss and he would collect a stick. Now, in this little and otherwise meaningless game, Goat taught me about that little convulsive motion as the highest order of the game as it has ever been played, by drawing my attention to something I was doing that I might otherwise never have noticed or understood.

Goat was guessing me, and I automatically slipped into the dream state learned from fasting, I had to play my best, but I could not block out his eyes penetration, they glittered even when I was not looking. For that fact, I was keenly aware in which hand I held the unmarked bone.

There was no point to avoid looking at Goat, under the circumstance, when he guessed me. So I gazed directly at Goat waiting for the guess.

Goat guessed, he pointed, and at that moment I felt a small jump in both my fists, and opening them, it was revealed to both Goat and myself.. Goat had missed, but actually not. The bones were the reverse position of how I had hid them, they had switched without my opening my hands. I was playing in Dream Time, in the awake world. Goat saw this, I was doing something more typical for him to do.. and he made me look at it.

I won that game and Goat told me “I challenge you.” Goat wanted me to play him in a one on one Medicine Game, an old time power exhibition right then, right there, in the style of the old Blackfeet ceremonial rules, a game he knew I could play. I told Goat “I won’t, I’m afraid of you.” Goat replied to me “You’re not afraid of me.” But then he let it go. He was right, I was not afraid of him. I was actually afraid of how far that contest would go in public, I did not then and don’t to this day know the extent of my own powers relating to the game. I knew, however, that Goat’s power was great. In retrospect, too late, I realized I was wrong to pass on the challenge.

Only the real Medicine people in the crowd would have witnessed the actual sorceries, the phenomena, and a game that would be strictly entertainment at the highest level for their sake. The uninitiated would only have seen an especially entertaining game. It was a colossal missed opportunity on my part.

But I made it up to Goat. Later, I bought a photo of a Mountain Goat, an old Billy Goat resting on a mountainside, from the nationally known wildlife photographer Tom McBride. I gave that photo to Goat as a gesture of my respect. One of Goat’s grandsons told me a year or two later that Goat would quietly invite visitors at his Heart Butte home into his bedroom: to see that very special photo of himself in its place on the wall.

Later on, about 1990, I was stuck when I played Stick Game. I could not run with the bones anymore. So I forced myself, strictly as a matter of logic and not medicine, to run, not stay, until the other players sensed I had my edge again. It wasn’t true. I stopped playing.

“Ron’s essay on the Stick Game is the best and most insightful description of this game and its spiritual underpinnings extant in the literature.”

-Karl Schlesier, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

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